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Originally appeared in Issue No. 10

 
  

 
    
  
 
     
    
  
 

Trouble on the Pecos, or Mrs. Chandler's Donation
 
by Elizabeth Smith
  

“If  I  hadn’t gotten chicken pox, I would’ve been Golden Girl of 1950 and you know it, Beverly Titchell Draw," Doris Hale Chandler complained. Her sharp voice stirred the bell over the front door of the West of the Pecos Museum.

Standing behind the Hospitality Counter, Beverly flicked her gaze ever so briefly over Doris’s blocky body and frosted, tightly-permed curls. She busied herself with pamphlets advertising her late husband’s real estate business and an aggressive "Eat Beef" campaign. Their fight was so old that the words came to her like familiar friends.

"Why, Doris, are you talking to me?"

Beverly didn’t have to look at her one-time best friend to know that a flood of red anger would wash up Doris’s neck and face, all the way to the roots of her curls.

Beverly Titchell Draw knew that she herself was the very picture of 1950 Golden Girl of the Old West graciousness, from rinsed blond hair to slim navy blue pumps. A thin black ribbon held her hair in place, as it had ever since Mr. Draw had once complimented her appearance at the Starlit Dance following the Bicentennial Rodeo. She had many memories, but she had long ago packaged, labeled and stored them away, like the bag of old books she had found in her attic. The bag now sat under the Hospitality Counter of the museum, waiting to be taken to the Blue Ribbon Methodist Thrift Store.

"There you go, off into your dream world again. I swear, you think you’re so special, Beverly Draw. Do you know there have been fifty Golden Girls after you? Fifty."

"Forty-nine," replied Beverly automatically. "Really, must you always bring up ancient history?" She turned and yodeled up the West of the Pecos Museum’s staircase to a group of tourists on the second floor, "Dears, did you turn left like I told you? We have a whole third floor!" Visitors often became confused in the long, narrow hallways of the museum that used to be a fancy hotel, long ago.

Doris folded her arms and scowled fiercely. "You’re the one who brings up ancient history, Beverly. You never forgave me for marrying Zane, did you. It doesn’t even matter to you that he divorced me seventeen years ago! I hate to think what you must say to his current wife!"

Beverly’s feelings had nothing to do with Zane Chandler, the man she loved once upon a time, or the woman who had whisked Zane away from Doris’s thirty-year marriage. It was about one best friend betraying the other, an episode just as painful to her now as it was almost fifty years ago, and since yesterday, almost unbearable.

The bell over the front door tinkled. Beverly extended one cool, manicured hand towards the entering couple. She felt fortunate to be the hostess of the museum on her volunteer days, rather than the cashier in its shop, like Doris.

"Come right in, folks. How are you today? Welcome to the West of the Pecos Museum." Beverly offered a pen, and the young couple, a little windblown from driving on Rt. 285, signed their names. She sent them up the stairs to the second story of the Museum with a final admonition, "When you get to the Rodeo Room, make a left and go up the other set of steps, not down. Don’t forget. You’ll miss half the museum otherwise."

While Beverly concentrated on crossing a "t" in the visitors’ scrawled entry and correcting the date, she listened carefully to the sound of Doris’s footsteps leave the lobby, fade through the reconstruction of a saloon, and disappear into the museum shop. At one time, she and Doris had been inseparable. But that, as Doris had said in one of their brief, barely civil conversations, was a long time ago.

The couple soon sauntered down the museum steps and drifted into the saloon. Beverly heard them titter at the store mannequin that posed as the bartender then watched them stroll out the front door. After a husband, wife and drowsy toddler left, the only other visitors, the lobby settled back comfortably into its accustomed silence.

Unable to sleep last night in the dull heat of a west Texas night, Beverly had wandered into her attic. It hadn’t taken her long to find the bag of books, as if she had placed the paper bag behind the old card table just yesterday, rather than years ago. When she tipped the bag and allowed the books to spill out onto the floor, Beverly Titchell Draw felt the urge to weep for the first time since her husband had died ten years before. She mopped her eyes with her husband’s handkerchief and pressed its folds against her cheeks until she was calm again. Then she fanned out the loose jumble of brightly colored paperbacks. Her lips moved as she read a few of the covers reverently. John Callahan’s Texas Fury, Luke Short’s Raw Land, Law Rides the Range by Walt Coburn. All "Complete and Unabridged," all "Books of Proven Merit," all books she remembered having bought for 25 cents each back in 1953 or 1954 to read cover to cover in the long, still, empty afternoons while her husband was at his real estate office. She blushed, as if she had found love letters tied with a faded ribbon.

From the museum’s shop came the quiet, almost apologetic tones of Mr. Agar, the manager, and Doris’s sharp replies. Beverly cupped one hand around an ear and closed her eyes to hear better.

"I’ll ask Mrs. Draw," she heard, and when Mr. Agar’s anxious, apple-round face appeared in the doorway, Beverly had both hands folded together on the counter. She greeted him brightly. The manager fidgeted with his thin mustache then asked about her children and grandchildren. His question always gratified Beverly, although her answer was invariably the same.

"Thank you for inquiring about my family, Mr. Agar," she replied clearly, so that Doris could hear from the museum shop. Doris had a grown daughter in prison for petty theft, a son in the Merchant Marines, and no grandchildren.

"All my children are working so hard at their professions, and all five of my grandchildren are growing up to be such good little boys and girls."

Mr. Agar’s eyes darted once towards the hallway to the shop, where Doris was probably cupping her ear and closing her eyes to listen. He smoothed down his thinning black hair.

"Mrs. Draw, I thought you might be able to help me. What kind of flowers do you think the Museum should send to Zane Chandler’s service?"

Beverly blinked away the vision of her husband’s flowers at his funeral, which she had chosen. White lilies, tied around with a blue ribbon that was the exact color of his eyes.

"Er, Mrs. Draw?"

"I’m really not sure what kind of flowers, Mr. Agar. I’m not sure I’m the best one to—" Beverly stubbed her toe against the bag of books, just as Doris marched into the lobby. She continued, "Actually, I’m quite sure Zane Chandler would like something very Texan, like bluebonnets or—"

"Zane Chandler would want roses. And not yellow. Red." Doris’s voice was very loud.

"I believe I would know—"

"You have no business knowing, Mrs. Ernest P. Draw. He was never going to marry you. He told me."

"And he didn’t stay married to you, Doris Hale."

Doris narrowed her eyes. "My name is and always will be Mrs. Chandler."

Mr. Agar turned on his heel and left the room.

"And just what else were you saying?"

Beverly drew herself up to her full height and looked Doris in the eye. "I said, he didn’t marry you dressed in blue."

Doris blinked. She brought up a sharp finger. "Beverly Draw, if I thought you thought I was a fool...."

The tinkle of the bell over the front door announced the arrival of five tourists from Sweden.

Alone again in the lobby, Beverly pondered the bag of books at her feet, while the tourists’ footsteps creaked overhead. On the way to the Blue Ribbon Methodist Thrift Store that morning, she had realized that she couldn’t face dropping off the books like they were a bag of old shoes. So she had made a prim u-turn and driven directly to the museum.

Beverly opened the bag and pulled out one paperback by its spine. "I don’t for the life of me know why I used to read these," she said aloud to the empty lobby. "I’ll take them to the Thrift Store this very afternoon." She held the book gently in her pale, veined hands.

On the front cover, a shirtless cowboy was shooting off two guns under the title that shouted "Trouble on the Pecos!" A little breathless from the pounding of her heart, unleashed after all these years, Beverly didn’t notice the Swedish tourists murmuring "Thank you" as they filed past her and through the front door. The paperback’s spine snapped when she opened it and read:

Jan had never seen a man like the stranger. He was tall, lean-hipped and broad shouldered, with a bronzed face and with narrow gray eyes that held a flashing warmth behind their cool depths. Jan could not help noticing the two gleaming six-guns strapped to his hips. She stood her ground, although she tried to quiet the sudden fluttering of her heart. The stranger strode over to her, gripped her around her waist....

Doris marched up to the front counter clutching the morning newspaper to her chest. Beverly settled a pile of real estate brochures on top of the open book. On the brochures, her husband’s and brother-in-law’s calm, smiling faces illustrated that they had been "Trusted since 1952."

"And how is your little orange finch?" Beverly hoped that mentioning Doris’s favorite pet would distract her from noticing the book.

"You’d rather read about a figment than a real man, wouldn’t you?" Doris made it sound like a statement of fact. "Some people never change." She shook the obituary page at Beverly’s nose, spilled the morning paper onto the counter, then disappeared into the washroom, slamming the door behind her. The newspaper slipped to the floor.

Beverly straightened the brochures again and watered the azalea behind her. Carefully sidestepping the pages of the newspaper, she opened the door to toss out a handful of crumbled leaves. When a gust of dry wind stirred the pages and rolled them across the lobby, Beverly huffed a disgruntled sigh, laboriously knelt on the floor, and folded each page carefully over one forearm, until her fingers touched the obituary page. She stayed bent over it for a moment, then she dropped the rest of the newspaper onto the ground and carried the obituaries to the counter. Her palms smoothed the paper over the Formica counter top. From where Beverly stood, she could gaze through the front window, to where empty storefronts and gleaming railroad tracks sat absolutely still in the hot sun.

Mr. Agar peered into the lobby. "Is Doris here?" he asked timidly. "She seems upset."

Beverly stilled her hands and nodded meaningfully towards the washroom. "She’s in there."

Mr. Agar began to gather up the loose pages of the newspaper. He paused, pointing to the obituaries.

"Even if people get divorced, it doesn’t mean deep feelings aren’t still there. I hope Doris realizes that she has everyone’s sympathy."

Beverly had long practice in keeping her feelings hidden, but the harsh taste of jealousy suddenly washed up into her throat.

"Mrs. Draw, are you all right?"

Beverly drew her lips together in a polite and dismissive smile. "Mr. Agar," she replied. "Thank you for your concern."

Mr. Agar backed away, holding the newspaper, until he was in the doorway of the old saloon. "So sudden. Everyone will miss him."

"Everyone," Beverly repeated mechanically.

She dropped the old book back beside the others inside the bag, then pushed the bag beneath the counter with her foot. Behind the closed washroom door, Doris ran water and rustled paper towels.

Beverly read Zane Chandler’s obituary, but the stark black letters meant little to her, compared to what she remembered. She let the page slip quietly to the floor. Years ago, Beverly had promised Zane her hand in marriage, but even her best friend, Doris, had agreed that Zane couldn’t compare to Ernest P. Draw, whose family had roots in Pecos since its beginnings. Beverly had become Mrs. Draw on July 2, 1952, attended by the whole town of Pecos and nine tourists who had arrived early for the rodeo.

She stared at the faint smudges of ink on her fingertips then tried to rub them clean on the smooth counter top. Finally, she smeared the ink onto a Real Estate brochure, carefully avoiding her husband’s picture. Beverly admitted to herself that she only remembered one part of her wedding vividly. She remembered saying, "I do," and having to close her eyes against the sight of the bruises on her husband’s face, glowing fluorescent purple against the pale gray of his tuxedo. The bruises had been from Zane’s hard fists, the night before the wedding. Beverly had been secretly flattered over the spectacle of two men fighting for her, and thrilled by Zane’s frequent and drunken proclamations of love during the first year of her marriage. Although his efforts had always earned him a night in jail, they had also inspired Beverly’s husband to press against her in bed with something close to passion.

Beverly slid the smudged brochure absently under the stack. It was Doris who had finally married Zane in 1953, and that was when Beverly had bought her first paperback, the one with the shirtless cowboy on the cover. She had purchased and read many more during the thirty years that the Chandlers had scrabbled a hard living in a trailer on the edge of town. Then Zane had won it big at the slot in Vegas, divorced Doris, and married the woman who worked as a teller at the bank. The paperbacks had ended up in the attic, stored there ten years ago as part of Beverly’s bargain with God to allow her Ernest to live a little longer. Beverly had practically forgotten about the books, until yesterday, when two hours after Zane had put on his Stetson and told his dispatcher he was heading home, he was found dead from an acute heart attack in his El Dorado in the parking lot, cold to the touch from the air conditioning.

With the old museum muttering and creaking around her, Beverly gently drew open the edges of the paper bag.

"I want what’s mine," Lance gritted between his teeth, his hands just north of his holsters.

His rival leaned against the rough wooden railing of the saloon, a sheriff’s badge on his chest gleaming in the sun.

"What would she want with a dirty drifter like you? You better cut loose of this town."

Lance stepped out from the doorway into the dust of the street. The sheriff faced him, with his arms loose and ready.

"You d----d yellow varmint," sneered the sheriff. "She’s too good for you."

"No one calls me that," replied Lance Gill with a glint in his eye. "Draw."

Doris opened the door to the washroom, flicked out the light and stood for a moment, patting her face with a damp paper towel. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes red.

Before she could help herself, Beverly asked, "Doris, are you all right?"

Doris’s chin trembled, but then Mr. Agar entered the lobby, his arms cradling a paper bag. Beverly’s chest tightened for a moment until she realized that her bag of books was still at her feet. Doris pressed the damp paper towel over her eyes.

Mr. Agar placed the bag onto the counter. The contents clinked loudly. "Mrs. Chandler donated these this morning."

"Her husband just passed away, and she’s already...." Beverly began indignantly.

"That ungrateful woman!" said Doris. She balled up the paper towel and tossed it into the washroom. They both pressed close to Mr. Agar, who stepped back from between them, smoothing down his hair.

"I was thinking of putting them...."

But the women weren’t listening. Sharp, neat folds sealed the paper bag at the top. Doris clamped her fingers over the stiff paper and pried the edges apart. She tilted the bag and held it open under her nose. Beverly smelled perfume. Doris let go of the bag and pinched her nostrils. Beverly peered in.

Mrs. Chandler’s heavy perfume lingered in the bag, which held only a pair of heavy tarnished spurs tangled together within its depths. Beverly pulled them out. Their rowels clinked loudly together.

" I think they belong...." began Mr. Agar again.

"Why, I gave Zane those spurs when he won the bulldogging competition in 1953," pronounced Doris with satisfaction. "That was one month before we were married." She scooped them up and jingled them in her hands. "I know just where these should go. In the Rodeo Room next to the belt buckle that he won."

"I’m sorry to contradict you, but I gave them to Zane before you were even dating him." Beverly took the spurs from Doris. "They belong next to the belt buckle he won in 1952 for roping."

"You’re wrong," said Doris bluntly. She yanked on the spurs, but Beverly gripped them more firmly. "And what were you doing, giving him a gift at the 1952 Rodeo? Were you still wearing your wedding gown?"

"None of your business," gasped Beverly. She felt tears start to her eyes. "It was before you were even dating him!" she repeated, somehow finding it hard to breathe.

"My love inspired him to win the Bulldogging Competition, and I won him for good one month later." Doris tugged on the spurs again.

"Your love was nothing compared to what I could have given him!" Beverly shouted. A drop of her spittle flecked Doris’s cheek. "My love would have won him for more than just thirty years!"

"Ladies..." protested Mr. Agar.

Doris twisted the spurs savagely. Both women cried out and staggered back. Each held a spur in one hand. Beverly pulled Doris’s spur away and slammed both on the counter next to the cash register, out of Doris’s reach.

"I just want what’s mine," Beverly said with a quavering voice.

Mr. Agar said gently, "These belong in the museum." Beverly let him slide the spurs from under her hands. She noticed that she had a bruise on her palm.

Doris said, "Do whatever you want with them, Mr. Agar." One hand wiped her cheek, as she walked into the saloon.

A fierce joy blazed inside Beverly while she watched Mr. Agar fold the bag’s crumpled and torn edges. Then, for a moment, as the manager climbed the stairs, she couldn’t remember what was inside the bag. From the saloon, Doris’s voice called out, "You made the choice not to marry him, Mrs. Ernest P. Draw!"

Feverishly, Beverly flipped to the end of her book. Her lips trembled as she read, although she pressed her fingers tightly against them.

The sun was setting on the town of Bad Luck, and the smell of cedars was strong in the evening air. Jan’s lips touched the lips of the stranger, no longer a stranger to her heart. He gently pulled away and swung up on his horse.

"If I have to go out into the world to prove myself to you, Jan, I will." Lance’s horse stamped, restless. "Will you wait for me?"

Jan held back her tears with effort. "I’ll wait for you forever."

"Promise me, Jan. I can’t live without you," said Lance Gill huskily. Then he booted his horse up the path to the faraway mountain ranges and the wide distances beyond.

"I promise," breathed Jan. "I will wait for you forever, my true and eternal love."

Beverly closed her eyes. Doris’s fingers made soft, slow plunks on the keys of the old piano in the saloon. It was nearly closing time, when usually Beverly would unpin her plastic volunteer badge, tuck it beside the cash register, then relinquish her position behind the counter to Mr. Agar who would thumb through the money in the register. Instead, Beverly found herself slowly climbing the stairs to the second floor with the book she had been reading in one hand.

She walked by the Hispanic Heritage Room, then by the room where medals, uniforms, pictures, and letters home from the front memorialized all the fine men and women of Pecos who had served in the armed forces. A statue of Pecos Bill stood in a niche of the hallway, riding a horse that twisted under him like a cyclone. Beverly brushed a cobweb absently from his bronze ten-gallon hat. Her husband had worn a white Stetson like so many other businessmen in Texas, and so had Zane, after he had won at the slots. But when Zane was poor, he had worn a beat-up straw rancher hat, like any other cowboy. She averted her face and moved her lips in an apology to her husband as she tiptoed past the Pioneer Families Room, where the Draw family had an entire shelf of memorabilia.

The room Beverly searched for had gleaming saddles that sat on low-slung saw horses, clumped together and silent like someone years before had herded them into the room and left them to graze. The cantles and seats were stitched with thick thread, freckled with brass or nickel-plated conchos, and glossy and smooth from cowboy rear ends. Hats ranged along the walls. Yellow and tanned, gray, brown, straw, not a one of them clean. Some tall and peaked, other crushed, some rounded and smooth, all wide-brimmed. They crowded together in rough rows from the ceiling to halfway down the wall. Someone had written names on cards below each hat. Liberato Gamboa. Huck Holmes and Cecil Brown. Davey Smith, L.W. Drawdy, Chuck Harlan and Juan F. Vega. Beverly scanned the hats along the two bottom rows until she found it. Straw turned gray, brim furled up on either side, leather band and small gray feather. Beverly didn’t have to read the card to know whose hat it was. With the earthy smell of furniture polish and leather all around her, all she had to do was close her eyes to imagine Zane Chandler as he was when they were all young.

The book in her hand slipped to the floor with a sound like a handclap and lay sprawled open. As Beverly picked it up, a piece of brittle paper from a page fluttered to the ground. The words on the book’s back cover were more vivid than any obituary.

When Lance Gill rode into town, everything changed. He always took what he wanted, his six-gun blazing a trail of blood. Then he met his match in Bad Luck, Texas, where one woman loved him, and another betrayed him. He had one chance to make it out alive, and he took it. Here’s a thundering tale of lust, greed and gunplay...

“I’ll lock up, Mr. Agar." Doris’s voice echoed on the stairs. Beverly tucked the book under her arm, walked quickly to the Pioneer Families room, and used her husband’s handkerchief to dust the top edges of the frames of the Draw family photographs. She hummed ‘Amazing Grace’ loudly, while Doris’s footsteps creaked into the room with the hats and the saddles. After flopping the handkerchief along a shelf for half a minute, Beverly left it on the doorknob and picked her way across the floor to peer into the next room. What Beverly saw made her murmur "Goodness," and place a hand over her heart.

Doris, caught holding the straw hat with the furled brim, leather band and small feather, gasped like a crow. A space on the wall shone light brown and empty. She blushed but held the hat firmly to her chest. Beverly knew she should say to Doris, "You mustn’t touch the exhibits," but instead she asked, "Would you like a bag?"

Doris shook her head no. Her eyes were red and puffy again. "The feather," she said. "I’m replacing it with a new one." She held a thin orange feather in one hand.

The one on the hat used to be orange, Beverly thought. From an orange finch. Suddenly embarrassed, she left the room. She paused outside the doorway, beside the shelves of belt buckles and gloves from long ago rodeo riders. Zane’s dark spurs sat precisely between the 1952 Roping Champion belt buckle and the one for bulldogging from 1953. With a drawn-out sigh that fluttered the typewritten labels on the shelves, the long years’ burden of memories made their escape.

With her eyes still on the spurs, Beverly asked, "The funeral’s on Saturday?"

"Yes." Doris joined her beside the shelf. She still held Zane’s hat to her chest. Her other hand began to straighten the labels.

Beverly looked directly at Doris and crossed her arms. "Would you like to have some iced tea before?"

"Mr. Agar’s getting red roses for the grave."

Beverly let her arms rest at her sides before saying gently, "Red roses are nice. Red roses are fine."

Doris blinked rapidly, then sniffed. "Well...."

"Iced tea? See you for iced tea, Doris?"

Doris nodded.

Beverly left Doris with the hat in her arms and made her way back down the stairs, holding onto the banister until she had both feet firmly on the ground floor. The bag of paperbacks went home with her. At home in a row on her bedside table, she kept the old books for the longest time, not wanting to throw them away, not needing to read them.

  

Elizabeth Smith was born in New Jersey in 1965 and grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received a B.F.A. in Printmaking from Rhode Island School of Design and a Master’s degree in Waldorf Education from Sunbridge College. She currently lives and teaches just about everything in an elementary school in New York City. Ms. Smith has traveled extensively throughout the West and has a large collection of vintage Western paperbacks.

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